At 11 years old, Cindy Brunson ’96 knew she wanted to talk about sports on TV or to at least be at the games talking about sports. She just had to get over a few hurdles.
At the time, her dad would have a group of friends over to watch football on Sundays at their Tacoma home.
“They would be whooping and hollering in the rec room and having a good time,” recalls Brunson. “Somehow my mother anointed me ‘beverage girl’ and I’d have to take them drinks and collect their empty potato chip bowls. I thought, ‘This is lame. I want to be with them.’
“I grabbed an encyclopedia and I memorized the referees’ signals. The following Sunday I went down and they were hollering, and I said, ‘That was not a hold! I can’t believe the ref threw that flag.’ And I was in.”
After that, Brunson and her father regularly attended home Seahawks, Sonics, and Mariners games, further fueling her dream to go to Washington State University and into sports broadcasting. Now, with 13 years as a sportscaster on ESPN and a couple of years with Pac-12 Networks, Brunson is most definitely in.
Brunson, Jaymee Sire ’02, Beth O’Donnell ’13, and a number of other WSU alumni women have answered the call to enter sports journalism, paving a way in a field of broadcasting long dominated by male voices and personalities.
It’s not always an easy road. When Andy Rooney said women sportscasters “don’t know what the hell they’re talking about” back in 2002, it echoed what even recent studies show: For many viewers, a credibility gap exists between female and male sportscasters. Through their effort, training, and determination, however, women sportscasters continue to climb to the top of their chosen profession, pushing aside questions of credibility and worn-out assumptions about gender and the ability to report on sports.
At WSU’s Edward R. Murrow College of Communication, both men and women continue the long tradition of sports broadcasters from WSU, with CBS veteran Laura Dubowski and other faculty training them for the field. For women in particular, that education combined with practical experience prepares them to establish their authority and understanding of sports.
Fans watching the WSU women’s basketball game versus Colorado in late January had Brunson’s familiar voice and face on Pac-12 Networks to guide and inform them. She didn’t just sit down and call the game, though. Her work started hours before with writing and research on players.
“We try to make it look as easy as possible,” she says, “but I always have to do homework.” She’s downstairs at Beasley Coliseum. Cheers from players and visiting WSU women’s basketball alumni echo faintly down the hallway. The Cougs have just notched a come-from-behind victory over the Colorado Buffaloes.
Originally, Brunson was slated to be on the women’s basketball team. She came here to play, earning a partial scholarship, but she was also drawn by the reputation of legendary sportscaster Keith Jackson ’54.
A third torn ACL kept her off the court, so Brunson poured her energy into broadcasting, studying to be both on-camera and behind the camera. She also worked on news and other programs at the WSU television station Cable 8, but she really wanted to do sports.
“At Murrow we were supposed to take turns on who would do weather and who would do sports and anchor. I was always that one making trades to get that extra sportscast,” she says.
Her effort paid off, first with an internship in Spokane under then-KHQ sports director Dan Kleckner, followed by a job as weekend sports anchor and weekday news reporter at Portland’s ABC affiliate. A year later, Brunson headed east to work at ESPN, where she spent 13 years as a reporter and a SportsCenter anchor. The transition surprised her.
“I was used to being the only gal who might have known Alex Rodriguez’s batting average in the local newsroom, but to be the only gal in a room of 150 colleagues was a little jarring,” says Brunson. On the other hand, “[fellow anchor] Linda Cohn and I never had to wait to use the ladies room,” she says.
Despite the gender imbalance, ESPN staff cared more about who had the knowledge and who could communicate it, Brunson says. “If I could spout Steve Largent’s yards-per-catch average, I was OK, because I knew my stuff.”
In 2012, Brunson’s husband and fellow ESPN anchor Steve Berthiaume accepted a position as play-by-play announcer for the Arizona Diamondbacks, so the couple left ESPN and moved to Arizona. The move opened the door for Brunson to work as a host and reporter covering the Diamondbacks for Fox Sports Arizona. In the winter, she does play-by-play and analysis for women’s basketball, as well as sideline reporter duties for men’s hoops, on the Pac-12 Networks.
She says working for Pac-12 Networks really fits with her, since basketball is in her DNA. “They want alumni from the schools to be associated with the broadcast,” says Brunson. “They’re appreciative that I don’t want to do softball or volleyball. I want to stay in my lane.”
Back at ESPN, another Coug joined Cohn and the team of anchors in 2013. Jaymee Sire ’02 found early success at WSU—she won the 2002 Judith Waller Award for Outstanding Senior Woman in Broadcasting. She jumpstarted her career while interning as a WSU student for a television station in her hometown of Great Falls, Montana.
Like Brunson, Sire wanted to get into broadcasting from a young age. “I always knew I wanted to get into television,” says Sire. “I was a drama geek in high school and I’ve always been into sports.” That brought her to WSU, where the combination of training and experience at Cable 8 got her into the industry.
After Great Falls, Sire worked in sports reporting at a San Diego television station for four years. She moved to the San Francisco Bay area for Comcast SportsNet, where she covered the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s, along with other professional and college teams, winning a regional Emmy for her work. That broad experience took her across the country to ESPN.
It’s a huge operation, and a lot of work. To prep for anchoring at SportsCenter, Sire says the team of producers, on-air talents, researchers, and technical staff meet hours before the show, and then she sits down and writes. “At ESPN, we write a lot of our own stuff. People don’t often know that,” she says. “I want to have that input. It sounds more like what I would say.”
In addition to SportsCenter, Sire has hosted NFL Live, NFL Insiders,and Fantasy Football Now, and has contributed to the network’s Major League Baseball and Little League World Series coverage.
Brunson and Sire follow in the footsteps of several pioneers, women sportscasters who had to overcome powerful stereotypes of “just another pretty face” and prejudices that “women can’t understand sports” while they established their credibility.
Jane Chastain became one of the first woman sportscasters when she took over as sports anchor at a Miami TV station in 1967. She was the first woman to work for a large network, CBS Sports, beginning in 1974. Even though her sport knowledge brought grudging respect from the likes of Joe DiMaggio and the Miami Dolphins, her stint at CBS didn’t end well. She was told to not talk like a woman, then not to talk too technically like a man. She was fired in a year.
In the mid-1970s, Lesley Visser tried to interview Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw, only to have Bradshaw grab her notebook, sign his autograph, and hand the notebook back. Yet even in male-only sports like football, she made an impact. She became the first female National Football League analyst on TV, the start of a string of firsts for her: first woman assigned to Monday Night Football, first woman reporter on the Super Bowl sideline, first and only woman enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. She was the only sportscaster, male or female, to work on the network broadcast of the Final Four, the Super Bowl, the World Series, the NBA Finals, the Triple Crown, the Olympics, the US Open, and the World Figure Skating Championship. She was voted by the American Sportscasters Association as the number one female sportscaster of all time. She’s now a CBS Sports reporter.
Gayle Gardner also showed the way for women professional sportscasters as the first female sports anchor to appear weekly on a major network. She worked for ESPN and then NBC from 1983 to 1997. Laura Dubowski, clinical associate professor at the Murrow College of Communication and a 37-year veteran from CBS News, knew Gardner at television station WBZ in Boston in the late ’70s.
At the time, Gardner, then Gayle Grannock, was a production manager who wanted to be a sports broadcaster, says Dubowski. Gardner made it into sports, but it took a while.
“She had to break into being on the air—she was very pretty and she could write—and then she had to convince the news director to give her a chance. From there, it was trailblazing for her,” says Dubowski.
Gardner also became the first woman to do televised play-by-play for a Major League Baseball game, calling a Colorado Rockies and Cincinnati Reds game in 1993.
Dubowski now teaches broadcasting students at WSU, including a new sports reporting class, where she dips into her long experience in the television field. She didn’t make it onto the football field herself, though. When NBC had football games in Boston, they’d get a crew from WBZ and Dubowski would volunteer. “I always wanted to be on the field, but I was five feet tall and so I ended up with the broadcasters in the booth.”
She did end up working some in sports broadcasting when she went to CBS and helped produce the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan.
Dubowski grew up a sports fan, following the Boston Celtics in her native Massachusetts. She also has a long admiration for sports writing, calling it “some of the best writing around. They still have the luxury to just let it go.”
Dubowski says the situation for women sports broadcasters and writers seems to be improving, at least beyond the locker room access controversies detailed by sportswriter Susan Fornoff, who wrote in her 1993 book Lady in the Locker Room, “The road to acceptance for women is lined with the men declaring, ‘We don’t want you here.’ … When the women respond, ‘Too bad, I’m here,’ then the tests of manhood begin.”
Simon Ličen, a WSU sport management assistant professor, studies sociology and media in sports, and brings his experience as a basketball player and journalist in his native Slovenia to the enterprise. Ličen says he looks forward to having women do play-by-play for men’s games, especially in basketball or soccer, where “the rules are the same, the games are the same.”
Credibility for women in sports broadcasting is not a problem unique to the United States, he says. In Australia, a well-known woman sportscaster took over play-by-play for Australian rules football, a men’s sport. She “would even lower her voice when she commentated on those games, in order to sound more similar to male sportscasters,” says Ličen. “Nonetheless, the network received criticism from fans. They did not have her do those broadcasts anymore.”
Even today, the field lacks women in management and hiring positions at networks. Visser told a researcher that she has never been hired by a woman in her 30-plus year career. It can change as women move up in management, says Dubowski, which is beginning to happen at the local level.
To move forward in the occupation, women have “got to get the right person to listen to them,” says Dubowski. “They should say, ‘If I can do play-by-play for women’s games, I can do it for men.’ But there’s no room for mistakes. There’s a little more leeway for men.”
Women in sports broadcasting aren’t just challenged by sub-par assignments and salary differences. Several studies show many television viewers still think females are less credible and authoritative than males, says Ličen. Even women judge female sportscasters more harshly than men. Moreover, how viewers rate the attractiveness of the female sportscaster affects perceptions of credibility.
These troubling findings emerge publicly at times, such as the impromptu on-camera outburst by Andy Rooney in 2002, “The only thing that really bugs me about television’s coverage is those damn women they have down on the sidelines who don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.”
While Rooney received criticism from all directions for his sexism, and many wrote it off as a generational problem, studies as recent as 2007 show a lingering disconnect between how viewers perceive the ability of women sportscasters.
At ESPN, Brunson learned about the fickleness and ignorance of some viewers early on. She had a cubicle near the office of Stuart Scott, a longtime SportsCenter anchor who recently passed away, and often asked his advice. When Brunson prepared to anchor the show for the first time, Scott encouraged her and said, “You’re here for a reason. Just go be you.”
“The next day I’m playing my voice mail messages. There are three ‘get back in the kitchen, who do you think you are?’ messages. People said, ‘You’re too pretty. I didn’t listen to a thing you said because you were mesmerizing,’ and, ‘What kind of lipstick were you wearing? What were you thinking? That was terrible.’ Crud like that,” she says and then laughs. “Nobody was talking about the fact that I was doing sports.”
Brunson played the messages for Scott. He said that was nothing and played back ugly and racist messages left for him, an African American. Scott had kept the messages as a motivator. “It gave me perspective,” says Brunson. She kept the first “get back in the kitchen” message for her own reminder.
Sire agrees that a double standard exists. “If I say something slightly wrong, even an honest mistake, people are quick to say, ‘She doesn’t know what she’s talking about because she’s a girl.’ If a guy made the same mistake, it wouldn’t be an issue,” she says.
For recent alumni in sportscasting, like Beth O’Donnell, lessons passed on by Brunson and others give a clear sense of the work involved.
Attending Los Angeles Kings hockey games at ten years old, “I became obsessed with hockey, and football shortly after. My dad said, ‘You know what you’d be really good at? You could be a sports broadcaster,’” says O’Donnell.
She agreed and found WSU to be the perfect fit. In addition to her coursework, O’Donnell worked her senior year in the WSU Athletics communications office as a sports broadcaster, covering football games, interviewing student athletes, and producing televised reports.
O’Donnell graduated in 2013 with degrees in communication and sport management, then headed almost 2,500 miles north of Pullman to Anchorage, Alaska, to work as a sports reporter at KTUU, the city’s NBC affiliate. While it might seem an odd fit for southern California native O’Donnell, she jumped at the opportunity, where her love of hockey fit perfectly.
It still meant a lot of study. When O’Donnell studied at WSU, Cindy Brunson visited her class and gave the advice to learn everything you can about sports you don’t know.
“That really resonated with me,” says O’Donnell. If she doesn’t have the knowledge, “that’s when the credibility will get cut and people start to say, ‘That person doesn’t know what she’s talking about.’ Sometimes it’s a little overwhelming, so you drink a lot of coffee and stick with it.”
In Anchorage, she says, they have to cover everything locally, as well as report on national sports. She spends hours learning about events like the Iditarod and Yukon Quest sled dog races, the top mushers, the dogs, and the course. O’Donnell also covers the Iron Dog Race, a snow machine competition with racers traveling 60 to 80 miles per hour along the Iditarod course. “It’s so cold they have to put duct tape on their faces,” she says. The race will be featured on an NBC Sports documentary, so O’Donnell’s work will get national exposure.
She also reported on the Native Eskimo-Indian Olympic games, which took a lot of study. “There are these games you’ve never heard of and it’s a culture shock,” she says.
The culture of Alaska also lends itself to opportunity for women, says O’Donnell. “In Alaska, the fan base is very happy to have women in sports. We get told the fans like us more than the boys,” she says.
O’Donnell and Sire received advice as students from Brunson, but all three credit their success to education at WSU and one instructor in particular, the “Voice of the Cougars” and now-retired broadcasting professor Glenn Johnson.
“When I first got to campus, Glenn Johnson’s booming voice was very identifiable and it was one of the first sounds I heard in Murrow. I just thought, I need to get to know that guy and take every class that he offers and put myself in a position to succeed,” says Brunson.
Sire also admires Johnson and his practical advice from 30-plus years of teaching broadcasting students. “I love, love, love Glenn Johnson. I couldn’t imagine my college experience without him as a professor and mentor. He was very straight with us from day one and told us we had to put in our dues,” she says.
At WSU, students who want to become sportscasters will soon have more options. In addition to Dubowski’s sports reporting class in the spring, the college will offer a new sport and media class taught by clinical assistant professor Ben Shors next fall. “We certainly anticipate that we will formalize those courses and expand our offerings down the road into a degree,” pending approval, says Murrow College Dean Lawrence Pintak.
For women coming into the field as sportscasters, says Sire, it’s become a little easier. Particularly at ESPN, there’s a real effort to have women on shows, even with two women hosting SportsCenter.
Brunson agrees, but cautions that real achievement for women in sportscasting requires diligence.
“I put the onus on myself and my fellow women who are out there,” says Brunson. “We have to be good. We can’t give the viewer or listener an excuse to say, ‘get back in the kitchen.’ I always shoulder that burden, particularly when I was at ESPN because I didn’t just feel I was Cindy Brunson. I felt like I was Linda Cohn. I felt like I was Hannah Storm. I just didn’t want to be the weak link in the chain.”